TOKYO — Like the rising sun, taxes and death, every four (or five) years and, for that matter, seemingly every major championship, American track and field fans can count on disaster befalling the U.S. men’s 4x100 relay team.
It happened again Thursday, the American men crashing out in the prelims. Ghana ran faster. Ghana. China crushed the Americans. China.
This time, though, it didn’t involve a dropped stick, or a pass out of the zone. It did involve a bungled pass. But the real problem is systemic, and that’s at the root of everything — still — and it prompted an eruption of years of pent-up frustration, embarrassment and, truth be told, anger, because it’s unfathomable why this issue keeps recurring, time and again, on the biggest of the big stages.
The emotion poured out from among the four guys themselves, leadoff runner Trayvon Bromell saying, “This is really so BS, to be honest with you.”
And it came from no less an authority than Carl Lewis, winner of 10 Olympic medals, nine gold, two of those golds in the 4x1 relay. He posted this to Twitter:
There were two rounds Tuesday of the men’s 4x1. The four fastest teams in each of the two rounds would advance to Friday’s final.
In heat one, Jamaica (37.82), Britain and Japan moved through.
The U.S. was in the second heat: Bromell to Fred Kerley to Ronnie Baker to Cravon Gillespie.
Bromell had recorded the world’s fastest time this year in the 100, 9.77, but inexplicably failed to make the Olympic final, coming in third in his semi. Kerley took silver in the 100. Baker finished fifth in the 100. Gillespie took sixth at the U.S. Trials in the 100; he was ranked 17th in the world in the 100; the relay was his only shot at a Tokyo medal.
The glitch happened on the pass between two and three. Kerley ran up on Baker. Unlike many other high-profile relays, they did not drop the baton. But in a race in which fractions count, Baker’s momentum was slowed, and considerably.
By the time Baker handed it off to Gillespie, it was a dead letter.
China and Canada crossed in 37.92; Italy in 37.95; Germany in 38.06; Ghana in 38.08.
The Americans finished sixth, in 38.10.
Ghana snuck into the final, two-hundredths better than the U.S.
The obvious questions: why these four, why this order and how much practice did they have together?
Because the last question gets to the crux of the problem — why does this keep happening? The relay woes are so familiar that USATF, under prior leadership, commissioned a formal report, dubbed Project 30, as far back as after the 2008 Games to examine why this is so — and yet it keeps on metastasizing.
In college, Kerley ran 13 times on Texas A&M's 4x1 relay. Eight of those 13 he ran the second leg; none were in major championship meets. When titles were on the line, he anchored five times, including in his last four races in 2017, the last time he competed in the event. Kerley proved here at the Olympics that he is the fastest guy of the four; by definition, he earned the anchor. He is taking the blame. But he was run in the wrong slot.
Bromell? In two previous races this season, he ran the third leg each time. He was set to anchor the 4x1 in Rio but, of course, got hurt. He has not led off a 4x1 since the opening round of the 2015 world championships in Beijing.
Baker's last 4x1 was in 2018. He ran a third leg on a team where the others were far more accomplished: Christian Coleman, Justin Gatlin, Mike Rodgers.
Gillespie, ranked 17th in the world in the 100m entering these Games, last anchored a 4x1 in the heats at the Doha 2019 worlds, a team carried by Coleman, Gatlin and Rodgers. He anchored six 4x1s in his entire collegiate/pro career.
Gillespie said, “I felt like our handoffs were pretty good in practice and in warmups. Just come out here and it wasn’t clicking. It’s frustrating to come out here and go home with nothing at all. You wait this many years to make the team, it’s the hardest team to make, so you want to get a chance when you get at this.
“… To me it was frustrating not making the 100 and so on and so forth. This was my chance to grab me a medal.”
Asked if he was familiar with the longstanding relay woes, he said, of course:
“For me, now that I’m a part of it, now I can understand it. From the outside looking in: 'They should have done this, they should have done that.’ It’s definitely, I don’t want to throw anybody under the bus, that’s not my job in this interview, but you know it definitely — we definitely have to get more practice in.
“For us, a lot of the countries run the same team. That’s what people have to realize. A lot of countries run the same team the last five, six, seven, eight, nine years. Obviously, that’s exaggerating a little bit. But most years, the U.S. team is the hardest team to make. So we go up and down on who makes the team every year…
“So you basically have a new team every year. And so that’s the kind of frustrating thing. Getting that communication, getting that camaraderie together. And, you know, coming out here and handling our business.”
Asked when this team first started practicing, Gillespie first answered, “Man, let’s say not too long ago.”
Three days ago? Four?
“Two days ago.”
If he, Cravon Gillespie, could sit in a room with senior USATF high-performance officials and say, this is the fix, what would it be?
“At the end of the day, we got to get more practice in. Guys are coming in and doing individual races and things like that. But at the end of the day, you can’t put all the pressure on us to perform when we’re — I guess not given the best shot. Give us more practice and we’ll be fine.”